Being a teenager in 60’s London

While pop stars, actors, photographers, and fashion designers were “swinging” in London in the 60’s, many people “just got on with it.” We recently found a book that provides that perspective – A cup of tea that is forever England: Lighthearted tales of working class life in 1960’s London.
We welcome Julie Norton, editor of the book and a partner at Branchwood Publishing.

In the book, you write that as a teenager in 1960’s London, you “observed with keen interest the evolving social changes taking place around me.” What were some of these social changes?

JN: When I wrote those lines I chose the word observed because I watched with interest what was going on but at the time didn’t feel I was a main mover; I was only 12-15 during the early 1960s and quite shy. As an older teenager I certainly chose to wear the latest fashions, as best I could with limited funds, and considered myself a ‘mod’, though I preferred to blend in rather than make strong fashion statements.

I went to a mixed grammar schooI and when I was in the 5th form some of the 6th form boys brought their scooters to school, and wore their parkas with pride (though i’m now surprised they were allowed to as uniform rules were quite strict). I was envious of the more confident girls who flirted with the boys and were given rides on their scooters at lunch time.

Pop music and the charts dominated the conversation among my peer group but my parents were rather dismissive of the music. We had a colour television in the sitting room and a small black and white set in my parents’ bedroom, and in order to watch Top of the Pops I had to sit uncomfortably on the end of their bed. I was a great fan of Elvis Presley and I remember always buying the latest single as soon as it was released and playing it over and over with a similarly besotted friend. My mother described Elvis as ‘that bruiser’. Interestingly, these days all generations share the same music tastes, perhaps because some of the bands from the 1960s are still playing! Groups like the Rolling Stones must have seemed quite shocking to the older generation then who were reared on singers like Vera Lynn then appreciated the crooners of the 1950s.

In common with most mothers of teenage girls, mine was concerned about where I was going and what I was doing, but it wasn’t always unsuitable boys she was worried about. When I went out for an Indian meal with a couple of girl friends she told me people would think I was a lesbian!  Like many girls today, I felt inferior to the good looking and fashionable young women as portrayed in the media. But we were lucky; we had nothing like the pressures girls have now to achieve perfection in their appearance, where a size 6 is considered ‘normal’. In fact I don’t remember worrying about my dress size at all.

The ‘sexual revolution’ left me feeling slightly disturbed and lacking in confidence. I now realise that, though all this sexual freedom appeared to be universally welcomed, in reality girls were often being manipulated and exploited. That era saw the Motor Show, for instance, with nude models draped over the bonnets on press day.

Did these social changes affect you personally? Your family?

JN: I was aware of a exciting buzz going on in the background, but day to day we just got on with our lives. The social changes were being talked about but there were mixed messages: the media was depicting the era as bringing more freedom for women, but there was still stubborn prejudice from the older generation. For instance when I told my teachers I wanted to be a journalist they dismissed the idea and suggested I try teaching or secretarial work. As for my family, my mother’s day to day life was generally the same as the decade before, except with some help from innovative kitchen gadgets.

Do you remember any changes from the 1950’s to the 1960’s?

JN: I was only 12 in 1960 so wasn’t able to analyse how one decade evolved into the next, and the turn of a decade is never a sharp transition where attitudes suddenly change. In the late 1960s, when I was older and more discerning, I was able to make some comparisons. My sister is 10 years older than me so she was a teenager in the 1950s. I remember nagging for a stiff petticoat like hers, and wearing a ‘tight’ skirt, which was probably quite loose in reality, but satisfied the nine-year-old me. When I was older I saw high heels as passe (my sister told me a particular pair was uncomfortably high so she was going to walk in them a lot to shorten them!) And I’ve never liked the 1950s music of ‘crooners’ like Frank Sinatra.

Were you aware of changes specific to different districts or boroughs?

JN: My family moved house a lot, but I can’t say I attach specific changes to different areas. Famous people figured more. I lived in Acton and a friend went to The Elms, a secondary modern school Adam Faith had attended a few years earlier. While living in Neasden, Twiggy, also from there, was becoming well known (and Graham Young the murderer came from there!). My parents ran a cafe in the early 1960s in Neasden on the North Circular Road. I was the envy of my friends because I was able to listen to the pop hits of the time on the juke box.

Changes specific to social class?

JN: I am not aware of distinctions here. I went to Willesden County Grammar School where I blended in with the clever working class and lower middle. I stayed in my peer group of friends I made there.

Did living in London in the 1960’s have a lasting effect on you personally?

JN: I think the 1960s have always stayed with me as a special time, and I’ve retained a nostalgia for that era; for instance I like Mary Quant hairstyles with short hair and a big fringe, and I collect Honiton pottery from that time which features the naive flowers which decorated everything then. And I still hate high heels. When I watch old episodes of Top of the Pops the years seem to disappear. But then I believe everyone has nostalgia for when they were young, and tend to cling to the values of that time. Perhaps a problem of people who were young in the 1960s is that they are not quite sure what those values were!

Additional information from Julie Norton:

I was unusual in that my parents were communists, and this affected the way I was brought up. There were few ‘ house rules’ and they seemed happy to embrace new ideas. My father had fought in the Spanish Civil War (where he lost an arm), and the children of the widows and veterans were offered free holidays in East German Pioneer camps (a bit like holiday camps in the US). I attended for six weeks during the summers of 1962 and 1963, when I was 13 and 14. So instead of ‘hanging out’ with friends at home I was making friends with East and West Germans, French and Russian youngsters. This was while the Cold War was at its height and, looking back now, it seems strange that I was passing through the Berlin wall each way twice while everyone here was preparing for nuclear war! My parents were very trusting. 

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